On the fifth match point in Saturday night’s epic five-set thriller between UNB and Dalhousie’s men’s volleyball teams, Julio Fernandez readied himself to unleash yet another of his signature kills.
The three-time defending Atlantic University Sport Most Valuable Player scored UNB’s first three points of the final set – all kills – but was stuffed on his next two tries. He didn’t want to let that happen again.
And with the 1,368 fans in attendance collectively holding their breath, Fernandez hammered the ball through an opening at the net, as he had a thousand times before. Only this time, it was long and out of bounds, thus abruptly ending one of the most storied careers in UNB volleyball history.
“That last point. Wow. I really wanted to score on that ball,” Fernandez said. “It’s probably the worst feeling that you killed a game like that because your whole team is counting on you on that ball and you miss it.
“[When it went out of bounds] it was like ‘OK, we’re getting the next one’ then I turned around and I saw that that was it. It was probably the worst feeling of the night.”
But give full credit to Dalhousie. The Tigers clawed back after dropping the first two sets – in what both players and coaches described as a “hostile” Richard J. Currie Center – to win the match 22-25, 20-25, 25-21, 25-20 and 19-17, and with it, the school’s 35th AUS title.
“You could just see the commitment to every point by both teams,” Dalhousie head coach Dan Ota said. “For a spectator it must have been an absolute dream to see something like that because matches like that don’t happen very often, anywhere in the country.”
V-Reds middle Logan Keoughan also played his last game but came up big in his swan song with 14 kills and was dominant at the net. Rookie Eivind Anderson was also a big factor at the net with a match-high 18 kills, and despite losing Keoughan and Fernandez, head coach Dan McMorran said there’s a silver lining in losing a match that close.
“This leaves a bad taste in your mouth. One of the things we need to do is savour that bad taste a little bit as a reminder that we don’t want that taste in our mouths again,” McMorran said. “As demoralizing as that loss was, there is a silver lining that we have a fantastic group of guys returning next year.”
One returnee who will fall into a leadership role will be libero Chhase McFarlen. He’ll be back for his fifth year and coming off an AUS libero of the year award. But Satuday, he kept his team alive when they needed it most.
After Dalhousie opened up an 8-0 run early in the third set – which was undoubtedly the match’s turning point – UNB tied it back up at 14-apiece as McFarlen chased down a live ball out of bounds, dove into the UNB bench, took out a few chairs, faceplanted on the first row of the Currie Center bleachers, kept the play alive and got right back up as UNB won the point.
But that’s as close as UNB came, albeit they had 13 deadlocked scores in the fifth set.
For Fernandez, it’s not the way he expected to walk off his home court.
“It’s the toughest loss for me in my five years here, probably because it was my last one,” Fernandez said. “But at the same time, I kind of want to show the team how it feels so they don’t have to go through that in the next few years. That was basically my goal at the end. In spite of the loss, they know what they have to work on for next year. I’m happy for what’s left here. I know they’re going to do great.”
Fernandez said Saturday’s crowd was the biggest he’d ever seen, and to all the supporters who cheered him on over the years, he says “thank you.”
“Tonight was another night like that and I think UNB has an amazing crowd. I’m so thankful for that. It was hard for me to go and talk to people after a tough loss, but I had a lot of people come to me and shake my hand. It feels nice.”